"Don't come back until you've earned enough for a decent meal!"
My uncle's voice chased me out of the house, but I didn't leave yet. I waited patiently for my aunt to appear at the door with the usual bundle that I took whenever I was forced to scrounge for money. Inside, I heard the sound of a bottle smash against a wall, and I sighed heavily. Uncle hadn't been the same since the fire.
Life wasn't always like this. Uncle used to be a violist in the orchestra at the Opera Garnier, and I myself used to be a ballerina. The fire that destroyed the Opera House nearly two years ago turned our world upside down. Too proud to fall from a musician to a laborer and on too friendly of terms with cognac as it was, Uncle started drinking even more, and he was no longer the kind, jovial man who'd taken me in when my parents died under the Commune. He was bitter, angry, and sometimes abusive toward my aunt and me. He never raised a hand to us, but he made my aunt take in laundry for money and hurt her with cruel words, and he made me go out into the streets to earn whatever I could in whatever manner.
My aunt, however, would go so far as to smuggle me out some boy's clothes and Uncle's viola when I left. Back in a happier time, he'd taught me to play a little, and if I stood on a street corner, dressed as a boy playing for spare coins, it meant that I wouldn't have to sell my body so we could eat.
The front door opened again and my aunt appeared. She handed me the clothes and Uncle's viola, safe in its case. "Be very careful, Vivienne," she told me. "Your uncle would be angry if something happened to his viola."
"I know, aunt," I said. It was a risk taking it out of the house anyway, considering my uncle had no knowledge of it, but I refused to become a prostitute and my aunt, thankfully, didn't expect me to. I kissed her goodbye, then hurried off. If I was lucky, I'd be back before dark.
I found somewhere out of sight to change out of my dress, tucking my long auburn hair up under a cap and using long strips of linen to bind down my breasts. When I first started doing this, I'd been terrified someone would see through my disguise, but I'd learned since that people only see what they expect to. If I looked the part, no one would suspect that the small boy was really a young woman.
Appropriately attired, I took the viola and found a corner that was reasonably busy. The secret was getting a place where people would be sure to hear me, but where I ran the least risk of being shooed off or worse by a policeman, or of being robbed by some ruffian. I tuned the instrument, rosined the bow, set it to the strings, and began to play. I was by no means talented, but I had some skill, enough that every now and then someone would stop and listen and maybe even throw some coins into the open case at my feet. I'd always smile at them, then keep playing. If I encouraged them enough with my smile, sometimes they'd give me more money. I'd learned how to work a crowd long ago in the corps de ballet, and my experience served me well as a street musician.
I stood on the corner all day, until the sun began to set and I guessed I'd taken enough money to pay for our dinner. I put the viola back in the case, scooping the money out and stowing it in a pouch in my pocket. Then I headed off for home, taking my usual detour past the burnt-out Opera House.
The building looked ghostly in the gloom, a fitting kingdom for the phantom who had been said to live there. I'd never given credence to the stories the other ballet girls loved to share like the truffles they insisted would ruin their figures, but on the night of the fire, I'd seen him for myself from my place in the wings. He'd snuck onstage to join Christine Daaé in a duet destined to bring the house down—literally. When my former ballet comrade ripped away the mask he wore, the auditorium had filled with screams at the sight of his face, though that was the one thing I hadn't caught a glimpse of. It must have been terrible by the way everyone shrieked and gasped, yet they soon forgot all about it as the chandelier plunged from the ceiling, the gas lamps that lit it exploded, and the body of Ubaldo Piangi was discovered backstage. When the fire broke out, my only thought was of finding my uncle and getting out alive. We joined the stampede for the exits, Uncle still clutching his precious viola, and we stood out on the street watching our world burn, fearing what the future would hold in store.
It holds this, I told myself. Masquerading every day and practically begging on a street corner. Ah, well, at least we weren't starving and I wasn't forced to the indignity of selling myself for survival. I'd prided myself on being one of the few ballet rats who didn't flirt with the stagehands and fornicate with the subscribers. I might have been a lowly chorus girl, but I still had my self-respect.
I sighed and turned away from the Opera House. It was getting darker, and I still needed to buy food for the night before going home. I fished the money pouch out of my pocket and began to count my earnings.
"I'll take that, my good son."
I gasped at the sudden, gruff voice and the hand that snatched my money from me. "Give that back!" I demanded, knowing it was as good as useless. The man just chuckled, his grimy hands closing tightly over the little pouch. He was taller than me, broader, and much stronger. I couldn't hope to take my money back from him. His eyes darted down to the case in my hand and he said, "Now what's in here, boy?" He yanked the case out of my grip, and this time I struggled desperately to get it back. If I went home without the viola, Uncle would surely turn me out of the house.
"Give it back!" I cried. "Give it back!" I kicked at him and swung my arms wildly, but one blow from his fist knocked me to the ground and my cap fell off, my long hair tumbling down onto my shoulders.
I heard the man's surprised exclamation with a thrill of horror. My worst fear, realized. Someone had seen me for the fraud I was.
"Well, now," he said, his voice amused and intrigued, "what have we here, mon cher? A girl?"
I scrambled to my feet and tried to run, but he grabbed my arm in a vice-like grip and breathed into my ear, "What kind of strumpet tries to pass herself off as a boy? There are so much more profitable things you could do with your time, my sweet."
"Let me go!" I screamed. "Please, let me go!"
He dropped the viola and the money and clapped his hand over my mouth. He dragged me over to a shadowy recess near the Opera House where no one could see us and forced me up against the wall. Keeping one hand over my mouth so I couldn't cry for help, he tore at the waist of my boy's trousers. I fought tooth and nail to get free, but he was so much stronger than I was. I closed my eyes tightly and tried to take my mind away from this dark street, but I felt the tears force themselves from beneath my eyelids. Nineteen years of carefully preserving my innocence, and it would all end with this.
There was a terrible pain between my legs, and through it I could feel my attacker inside me. I couldn't breathe, I was so choked by stifled sobs. I could hear him breathing, grunting, laughing to himself at my helplessness. Please, God, let it be over soon, I prayed. Please, just let it be over.
Finally, I felt the man pull away from me. The pain in my body was too much; my legs folded beneath me and I fell in a heap to the ground. "There, now, that wasn't so bad, was it?" he asked, then he spat at me. I looked up to see him return to the fallen money and Uncle's viola, pick them up, then walk away.
I was shaking so badly I could hardly get my trousers up again, and when I was decent I collapsed in shame and despair. I couldn’t stand, the pain still too great to let me. My only thought was, What will Uncle say when he finds I lost his viola?
The sobs burst from me then. I couldn't go home. I couldn't face my aunt and uncle and tell them what had happened. I crawled across the ground to a gate that led under the Opera and pushed on it. It swung open with an earsplitting whine; I pulled myself through to the darkness beyond and gave myself over to my tears.
I sat staring at the music before me, but I couldn't bring myself to play. What was the use, I asked myself, when the heart and soul had been stolen away from me, when the music itself no longer held any comfort? She'd taken it with her when she left me that night two years ago. Had it only been two years? It had seemed like a lifetime.
I sighed, then swept my hand out and sent the music fluttering to the floor. There was no use in playing, no use in breathing, no use at all. Why I'd let myself go on for this long was beyond me, telling myself that perhaps the music would save me again, like it had in the past. Only now did I see the truth: Music couldn't save me any more than it could change my face, the face that had driven her away from me. I hung my head. "Christine," I whispered. "Christine..."
I stayed there for the longest time, her name still on my lips, when a new sound reached me—the metallic shriek of rusty hinges, then the weeping of a heart lost to sorrow. If it weren't for the sound of the hinges, I might have believed that the weeping was the sound of my own broken heart, but I knew otherwise. Someone was in the Opera.
Getting to my feet, I crept through my house and went to the edge of the lake. I could hear it clearer now. There was someone crying on the far shore.
With a curse, I climbed into the boat I'd recovered after Christine and her vicomte left and began to row. Since the fire, people had been sneaking into my Opera House, curious and eager to see where the notorious Phantom had made his empire. A few simple tricks were enough to drive most of them away: a disembodied voice in the darkness, a falling backdrop for the ones who made it backstage, a glimpse of movement in the shadows for those who still weren't convinced there was anything to fear from ghosts. Only a handful had ever penetrated to the lake, forcing the lock on the gate from the Rue Scribe, and I'd had to be harsh with them. The siren had sung on several occasions, and the Punjab lasso had seen some work. I knew exactly how to deal with this new intruder.
I lit on the bank without a sound and leaped from the boat, readying the lasso in my hands as I went. I approached with silent footsteps, closing in on the crying person. Tears wouldn't help them now. They had dared to disturb me in my misery, they had wanted to see the face of the damned, and their curiosity had damned them in return.
Light from the street fell upon the figure, face down on the ground and sobbing as though the world had ended. It was the sound that filled my mind during my waking hours and even my dreams when I could bear to sleep. My hands slackened their grip on the rope...
No, no mercy. It was mercy that had let Christine leave me in this hell. I was done with mercy.
I stepped forward and stopped again. I could see a long mane of dark red hair, like a cascade of fire. This intruder was a woman, and she lay at my feet, heedless that her end was approaching, defenseless like my other victims, probably not even caring.
I lowered the rope again. What was the matter with me? She was an intruder, she needed to be taken care of!
She suddenly looked up around her, finally sensing my presence, and her eyes fell on me for a moment before she lost consciousness.
I stood indecisively. I should kill her and get it over with right now, but something in the way she'd cried seemed to bind her to me. She had known suffering like mine; only one who had felt such utter heartbreak could recognize it in another.
Erik, you're losing your grip, I told myself, yet I knelt down and scooped her into my arms, carrying her to the boat and heading back to my house. The lasso I left lying on the bank where I'd found her.
How's that one?